Legacy and born-digital collections often exhibit moderate to severe fragmentation. Fragmented collections are those whose specimens or metadata have been separated, isolated, compartmentalized, or otherwise compromised for future research by a lack of integration. For an analog legacy collection, this might mean that metadata is spread across many different documents (e.g. field records, maps, catalog cards, hard copy photographs, analytical results, reports, etc.) and that no full compilation of metadata into a single dataset has been achieved. For a collection that is partially or fully digitized, this may include unnecessary duplication of metadata into different formats, incompatible file formats, inconsistent or truncated data across digital platforms, or lack of an effective unique identifier (a "primary key") to link together metadata from different sources. Fragmentation is the result of increasing specialization within the archaeological discipline and the lack of digital solutions to consolidate information into integrated relational databases.
Over the past 50 years, the shift to a discipline dominated by Cultural Resource Management (CRM) represented a sea change in the roles and responsibilities of different individuals associated with an archaeological project. Prior to CRM, most archaeological collections were curated and analyzed by the same individuals (or their assistants) who had served as the primary investigator of the surveys and excavations in which these materials had been collected. These individuals were curators at museums or historical societies, academics employed by universities, and staff or contractors of government agencies. Prior to CRM, the burdens of fieldwork, analysis, reporting, and curation were shouldered by a small number of individuals and their students or assistants. This is somewhat still the case in regards to archaeologists employed by universities and museums, but these professionals now represent the minority of the discipline. The majority of fieldwork is now conducted by professionals in the CRM industry or their government equivalents.
No sector of archaeology has remained unchanged over time, because all professional archaeologists have become increasingly specialized in their research interests and analytical skills. The early generations of professionals were expected to be proficient in multiple classes of artifacts (e.g. lithics, ceramics, and faunal materials) as well as multiple cultures from a diverse expanse of time, due in part to the low number of professionals and the limited funding for professional staff. In contrast, many modern archaeologists tend to specialize primarily in only one or two types of analysis (e.g. lithics) or even subspecialties (e.g. lithic microwear analysis). Many of these specializations and subspecializations did not exist until relatively recently and new specializations will undoubtedly continue to emerge over time. In the twenty-first century, analytical specialties are increasingly based less on knowing local artifact typology and more upon technical proficiency with emerging technologies. Many modern professionals also specialize primarily in only one or two time periods/cultures. As archaeological projects have become increasingly more complex and comprehensive, there has been a fragmentation of roles.
A large modern CRM project can be logistically complex, involving many individuals who do not necessarily even work in the same locations. Medium and large CRM companies often maintain field offices in multiple states and may receive contracts for remote work in yet still other states. Survey and excavation are undertaken by a field crew, whom are often seasonal employees that move from one project to the next (and from one company to the next), including across states and regions. Data collection in the field may be spread across many individuals, some of whom are specialists proficient in new technologies that did not exist until recently (e.g. GPS, GIS, geophysics, surveying instruments, etc.) Even a small project may have mapping or photography assigned to a single specialist or supervisor. Roles and responsibilities within a CRM project may be highly segregated between individuals as companies seek efficiency and economies of scale.
The principle investigators who organize these projects are usually full-time employees who are responsible for managing multiple aspects of a project, including budgeting, logistics, and writing reports. Post-field analysis is often aided by a handful of specialists, who may or may not participate in fieldwork and/or may be employed as a subcontractor rather than an employee. Each artifact class might potentially be examined by a different specialist depending on the requirements, scale, or scope of the project. If the analyst is a contractor rather than an employee, it is a common practice to loan subsets of the collection to the analyst for off-site analysis. The organization of the completed collection and associated data may be undertaken by a variety of individuals whom will then surrender these collections for permanent curation by a staff at a museum, historical society, or other repository.
At each juncture of the process, new information is added to a collection, but there is also a potential for information to be lost or ignored if it is not recorded in consistent integrated formats. As a collection and its metadata accumulate and move from one stage to the next; there is potential for the physical and digital components of a collection to become resorted, compartmentalized by analysts, and for each of form of metadata to become increasingly separated from the others. Spatial data (coordinates, unit maps, feature maps, profiles, geophysical data, aerial photographs, LiDAR data, etc.) are often destined for use in mapping (CAD or GIS) software. Specimens that were initially collected together from a single provenience become separated from each other as they are sorted into different material classes (lithics, ceramics, faunal, floral, carbon samples, soil samples, etc.). Each material class is likely to be further subdivided as analytical specialists sort the material (e.g. different raw material sources; different stages of manufacturing debris). Special finds (tools, ornaments, artifacts with diagnostic traits) are isolated from non-special finds during field recovery, cataloging, or analysis. Additional metadata on each material type (at the level of individual objects and the level of the assemblage) are generated during analysis. Final versions of maps and photographs may be further edited by a graphic designer. Final reports condensing all of this information are written by principle investigators and submitted for approval. When the project is complete, all of these objects, documents, and files will at some point usually be surrendered for curation at a museum, historical society, or repository. Curation of the collection is likely to be handled by professionals not associated with the project and in addition, may be specialists in collection management whom do not have any archaeological training.
Although not topic addressed in the Lichliter project, there are other common sources of fragmentation. In some cases, objects and associated data (i.e. field records) are not submitted for curation at the same institution, perhaps because of conflicting or unclear ownership where multiple government agencies overlap. In other cases, archaeologists surrender objects and final reports, but neglect to include the original field records and raw data. Finally, it is also common for large collections to be split between more than one curating facility. This occurs frequently with large complex sites where multiple separate investigations have been undertaken by different entities.
For example, the Lichliter site collection is split between the Dayton Society of Natural History (DSNH) and the Ohio History Connection (OHC). DSNH curates all of the materials from its own investigations at the site from 1962-1970 and a small amount of surface-collected material donated by a local collector in the years since. Prior to DSNH's activities, an avocational archaeologist John Allman (who first discovered the site) had excavated a significant portion of the site in the late 1950s. Despite their overlap with DSNH's excavation, Allman's collection and notes were independently donated to OHC to accompany his collections from other sites.